The Rhododendron Conference: A Delightful Experience
J. Harold Clarke, Long Beach, Wash.
The Rhododendron Conference arranged by the Royal Horticultural Society and held in London on April 26 and 27, together with the garden tours which followed, brought out much more about this genus that was informative, interesting and beautiful than this writer had expected, and that was the experience of the American group. Any written report will be a colorless skeleton which would have to be clothed with the color of R. augustinii or 'Gwilt King', the fragrance of R. taggianum, and the warm welcome of our hosts to adequately express our feelings. Very thoughtfully, the papers presented at the meeting were all printed ahead of time and copies were available for those who attended the Conference. Presumably these papers will be printed in the R. H. S. Year Book and so may be purchased from the Society. Certainly any who are seriously interested in this genus should secure copies. In view of the fact that this material is available, no report of the papers as such will be given at this time except to list the speakers, all of whom are very well known in the rhododendron world. The speakers in the order of their presentation were: Mr. F. Kingdon Ward (paper read by Mr. P. M. Synge); Lord Aberconway, C. B. E., V. M. H., President of the Royal Horticultural Society; Dr. J. MacQueen Cowan, Assistant Regius Keeper of the Edinburgh Botanical Garden; Mr. F. Hanger, Curator at Wisley; Mr. F. J. Rose, V. M. H., and Mr. 0. C. A. Slocock. These papers, some illustrated by colored slides and others by the actual plants, ranged over the whole rhododendron field, propagation, varieties, breeding, culture, and classification.
A Magnificent Show
It was something unusual for the Americans to see two Flower Shows staged at once. There was a regular R. H. S. Spring Flower Show in the new hall of the Society, and the Rhododendron Show in the old hall just across the street. The plant material on display in general was in very good condition, well grown and well shown. In mentioning certain exhibits there is no intention of belittling the others, as there were more good things than can be described here.
Along one wall, running the entire length of the large room, was a display from the Edinburgh, Botanical Garden to illustrate the rhododendrons in their series, with large charts giving type paintings of the more important species in each series. This was probably as fine an opportunity as we shall ever have to see the whole complicated rhododendron group so graphically portrayed. Included in this display was a cross section of a rhododendron trunk from China taken from a tree some 80 ft. high, especially striking to those of us who had not seen large rhododendron plants.
The Goldsworth Nursery of Walter Slocock, Ltd., had a large display across one end of the building featuring large plants in full bloom. A number of other nursery exhibits were also well staged. There was a particularly good educational exhibit from the R. H. S. Gardens at Wisley. Among the things in this exhibit which attracted the writer's eye were many interesting species such as R. saluenense, ambiguum, glaucophyllum, wardii, williamsianum, aberconwayi, litiense, niveum, tephropeplum, yunnanense, scabrum, concatenans, oreotrephes, spinuliferum and others, as well as hybrids; to mention only a few, 'Yvonne', 'Penjerrick', 'Temple Bells', 'Letty Edwards', 'Hiraethlyn', 'Electra', and 'Laura Aberconway'. An excellent assortment of species and hybrids was also included in the exhibit from Windsor Great Park.
In the competitive classes, special emphasis was placed on seedlings but not to the exclusion of species and some hybrids. An especially fine truss of 'Fortune', R. falconeri X R. sinogrande, was shown by Edmund de Rothschild to win first in the class for best single hybrid. This class seemed to be considered an important one, as well it might be. Second prize went to Hon. John McLaren for a good red hybrid of R. griersonianum X 'Barclayi'; third to a fine white 'Loderi Pearly Queen' ('King George' X 'Sir Edmund') raised by Sir Giles Loder. Other good entries were 'Red Glow' (R. thomsonii X 'Halopeanum') by Sir Giles Loder, and a light pink 'Cornish Cross' X 'Kewense', shown by Lord Aberconway. Another seedling of Mr. de Rothschild's should be mentioned, namely a fine red 'Queen of Hearts' A.M., R. meddianum X 'Moser's Maroon'. Other varieties of special note included 'Blue Bird', a good small blue, 'May Morn', 'Elizabeth', and 'Gretia' shown by Lord Aberconway, and a deep pink seedling of R. gauntletti X R. auklandii shown by Admiral Walker-Heneage-Vivian.
Visits to Gardens Near London
The R. H. S. had arranged for three days of visiting important gardens within driving distance of London. On the first day after the Conference, the trip was to Tower Court, Ascot, home of J. B. Stevenson, Esq. Here were seen some 50 acres of garden in which rhododendrons predominate. This is one of the great rhododendron collections, especially noted for its great number of species as well as named hybrids.
On the way to Tower Court the American visitors got their first real view of the thickets of R. ponticum which has become naturalized all through this area. These plants frequently reach 20 ft. in height and at Tower Court, as well as in many other gardens, are used as a tall clipped or natural evergreen hedge with considerable success. At Tower Court there was a good display of R. augustinii in full bloom. This beautiful blue flowered species was used effectively in many of the gardens visited later, usually as large plants to provide a background of misty blue, rather than as specimen plants.
The following day two gardens were visited, the first being Leonardslee, property of Sir Giles Loder, Bt., Horsham, Sussex. This garden, as would be expected, provided some magnificent specimens of 'Loderi', produced by Sir Edmund Loder, grandfather of Sir Giles, as well as a large range of other types. The garden was well laid out with a rock garden for the displaying of some of the azaleas and smaller rhododendrons, together with a long ravine where the larger rhododendrons seemed perfectly at home. This use of the ravine was a feature of several gardens. Paths part way up the slope enable the visitor to observe the plants from a high point or from below, and the use of tall growing types on the upper slopes gave an illusion of great height. However, at Leonardslee, as in most of the gardens visited, the plants were so large that they needed no artificial arrangement to appear tall; some were a good 15 ft. in height in this garden.
In the afternoon the group went to Wakehurst Place, property of Sir Henry Price at Ardingly, Sussex. Here was seen a fine old Elizabethan home as well as some very fine gardens. The property is quite extensive, the gardens being about a mile in length, and features an Ericaceous garden, formal gardens, and large areas of informal plantings where rhododendrons predominate. Here we saw a more formal type of gardening near the house, which had its old fashioned walled kitchen garden complete with espalier fruit trees. In the rhododendron area, special note was made of a beautiful R. orbiculare and some very large R. falconeri.
A very pleasant afternoon was spent at the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley, Surrey. These extensive gardens provide a wonderful opportunity for testing not only Rhododendrons but all other types of plants In order to determine their relative merit for garden use. The plants are displayed to very good advantage so that they may be enjoyed by the numerous visitors. Incidentally, this garden together with Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh, provide a place where young men are trained in the gardening profession in a most satisfactory way. Some, of our well known Directors of American Botanical Gardens have been trained in these institutions. Under the direction of Mr. Francis Hanger, a very fine collection of rhododendrons is being developed on Battleston Hill at Wisley. Some varieties of special interest were 'Hawk', 'Red Dragon', 'Mrs. Betty Robertson', 'Chintz', and 'Norman Gill'
The Long Tour
On May 1, three motor coach loads of rhododendrons enthusiasts started on a ten day tour arranged by the R. H. S. in cooperation with Thomas Cook & Son. This was a veritable "Cook's Tour" in the American sense, for we saw not only rhododendrons but a great multitude of other things. This first day, for instance, the route led through "The New Forest." "Why is it called 'new'," we asked, and when was it established?" "By William the Conqueror," replied our courier. We wondered when it would be referred 'to as "The Old Forest." But then we were not so surprised when told that a venerable looking house "isn't old; it was only built about 1600." At any rate, to us most things looked old - thatched roofs, stone walls for fences, the narrow bridges, the stone cottages with their neat little gardens old not in the sense of being decrepit but old enough to have character and to be most attractive.
The first stop was at Exbury, property of Mr. Edmund de Rothschild, and of course well known for the many rhododendron varieties originated by his father, Mr. Lionel de Rothschild. Lunch was served to the entire party through the courtesy of Mr. de Rothschild. The gardens at Exbury have been described in a recent issue of the Rhododendron Year Book to which the reader is referred. They are so extensive that we could see only a portion and that at a very rapid pace. Of special interest, however, were a number of new varieties which were at their height, such as 'Fortune', 'Queen of Hearts', 'Idealist', 'May Day', 'Carita', 'Yvonne', 'Ethyl', 'Bibiani', 'Gypsy King', 'Cowslip', and 'Carmen'.
On May 2, the group visited Minterne, owned by Lord Digby, at Cerne Abbas. This is a fine old residence in which the first Duke of Marlborough lived in 1620 and includes, among other art objects, the famous tapestries presented in 1710 by the City of Brussels to General Charles Churchill. The tapestries and paintings were explained by Lord and Lady Digby who very kindly served tea to the visitors before conducting them through the gardens. Here again we saw the familiar ravine method of planting rhododendrons which seems to provide ideal conditions for the plants as well as for viewing them. Much of this garden was planted by Adm. Digby in the 17th century. The Hooker Rhododendrons were planted about 1880, and species from all the later expeditions have been added Wilson, Rock, Forrest, Farrer, and Kingdon Ward. Here a plant of R. falconeri planted in 1893 produced 1176 trusses in 1948.
The next day a visit was made to Caerhays Castle, Property of Mr. C. Williams, M. P. For fine specimen plants, this garden was outstanding. Again, however, the grounds were so extensive that we were able to see only a portion. There were fine specimens of 'Penjerrick', the 'Loderi' types, and many species including the large leaved ones such as R. sinogrande. Mr. and Mrs. Williams invited the group in to tea. There were beautiful paintings by famous artists, but the things that pleased most were the many vases of cut rhododendrons and azaleas most tastefully arranged. A vase of R. augustinii, tall as a man, was perfect. At the service entrance to the castle, a magnificent specimen of Forrest's original R. molle, bright orange in color, took one's eye from a great distance. At Caerhays a fine collection of magnolias was inter- planted among the rhododendrons.
Penjerrick, property of Mr. W. T. Fox, was the first stop on May 4. This well known garden was smaller than a number of the others visited but in the opinion of most, the plants were especially well placed in order to make a very, beautiful and effective landscape. There were exceptionally fine plants, of 'Cornish Cross', 'Penjerrick', and many others. 'Cornubia' came from this garden. The scarlet flowered Embothrium, a small tree from Chile, was doing well here.
After lunch there was a short interlude at Land's End, the very southwestern tip of England. The scenery was striking and members of the group enjoyed climbing over the rocks, but were anxious to get back to the gardens, and so were soon happy to be wandering over the gardens at Trengwainton, property of Lt.-Col. Bolitho, the Lord Lt. for Cornwall. In this garden there were some very fine banks of azaleas and nice specimens of R. taggianum, R. griffithianum, R. elliottii, 'Telltale', 'Sir Charles Lemon', 'Gwilt King' and others. Col. Bolitho had very considerately collected trusses of a number of varieties and they were displayed on tables at the house. This party was almost a christening as the variety 'Laerdaha' had been named earlier in the day. It is a seedling of R. johnstoneanum X R. dalhousiae.
Two very interesting gardens were visited on May 5. In the morning we were at Trewithen, property of G. H. Johnstone. There were very fine specimens of rhododendrons here, planted just right to frame the vista from the house. Many of these plants were 15 or 20 feet high and were in excellent bloom at the time. One variety, named here, which impressed the writer, is 'Saint Probus', a very attractive large flowering pink.
The largest rhododendrons seen, and supposedly the largest in England, were at Heligan, property of Lieut. Commander H. H. Thomas. One group of R. arboreum was certified to be 60 feet in height. Dr. Cowan stated that he had not seen larger ones even in the Himalayas although there might be larger ones there. Many other clumps were around 40 feet, the trunks ranging from 6 inches to about 1 foot in diameter. What was said to be the largest plant of Camellia reticulata in Europe was growing on a garden wall. It was some 22 feet in height and had had about 6 feet trimmed from the top where it projected above the wall. It was estimated to be about 100 years old.
On May 6 the group went to Tregothnan, property of Viscount Falmouth. This is a very large estate of some 47,000 acres. The gardens are featured by extensive groups of very large R. arboreum. It was interesting to see here, as we had already seen at Col. Bolitho's, very large rhododendron plants, some with trunks 6 or 3 inches in diameter, cut back to stubs 3 or 4 feet high. These plants had gotten too "leggy" and were being headed back to encourage new growth. From the results so far it seemed as if they were responding well and would soon be covered with new branches.
The following day we left Cornwall with its mild climate and unique countryside, and it was not until the afternoon of May 7 that another garden was visited Hideote Manor not far from Stratford-on-Avon. This garden did not contain many rhododendrons but was especially interesting because of the extensive use of clipped hedges and various topiary forms. It was an excellent example of formal planting.
Bodnant, the home of Lord Aberconway
Sunday, May 8, was spent in travel to North Wales where on May 9 the beautiful and extensive gardens of Lord Aberconway, located near Bettgw-y-Coed , were inspected. These gardens, probably the finest in the country, combined all types of landscape effect and plant material. There were extensive plantings of Azaleas and small species Rhododendrons in the Rock Gardens. A garden pool was effectively ringed with plants of R. williamsianum. Larger rhododendrons were effectively displayed in a large ravine on both sides of a millstream. An item of interest to the American visitors from the West Coast was skunk cabbage used as an ornamental. There were formal gardens with outdoor amphitheater, reflecting pools, etc. The house is located at the top of the garden, much of which can be seen from the terrace, over and beyond which may be seen the beautiful hills and valleys of North Wales. On the terrace close to the stone wall of the house was a beautiful plant of R. bullatum in full flower.
The father of the present Lord Aberconway was co-sponsor of a number of the early plant exploring expeditions in China, and financed others by himself. These Chinese introductions have helped to make this a most interesting garden. The greenhouses at Bodnant were extensive and contained a varied collection fruits, orchids, a beautiful begonia grotto, and of course rhododendrons of which R. nuttallii was especially beautiful.
A few of us were privileged to make A short side trip, while in Wales, to the garden of Mr. A. T. Johnson near Tal-y-Cafn. Mr. Johnson, author of "A Woodland Garden" and "The Mill Garden" had a very fine collection of plants effectively arranged. We were especially taken with a R. hanceanum nanum, a fine light yellow, not over a foot high, spreading, and apparently a very useful thing for the rock garden.
Each garden seen had points of special interest and was distinct in itself. There was no unpleasant repetition even where the same rhododendrons were seen as they were used in different settings and in different combinations. The thing which greatly impressed this writer was the use of species rhododendrons a great many different species, from 60 feet in height to only a few inches, upright, prostrate, large flowered, small flowered, large leaved, tiny leaved, and of all colors. In many cases these were planted in rather large groups and the natural seedling variation gave just enough variety of color and form to lend interest. It was a real privilege to see the gardens where many of our best known varieties have originated, and in some cases to see the original plants.
One thing that was a bit disconcerting was to see the great variation in plants such as 'Penjerrick' and others, where a variety name has been given to all of the seedlings of a certain cross. From a landscape standpoint this variation was pleasing. However, one could not but wonder how such a variety could be described so that it could be accurately identified and what would be considered the type. Furthermore, one could picture nurserymen in the future making the same cross, perhaps using inferior specimens of the parent species, and getting inferior seedlings as a result, but still entitled to the original name.
The American group included Dr. Clement Bowers of Maine, New York; Mr. and Mrs. Harold Epstein of Larchmont, New York; Mr. Nearing of Ridgewood, New Jersey; Mr. George D. Grace of Portland, Oregon; Mr. John Henny of Brooks, Oregon, and Dr. and Mrs. J. Harold Clarke of Long Beach, Washington. Much has been said about the English weather, and the American group was prepared for the worst. To their surprise, the weather was practically perfect and there was no delay or inconvenience whatsoever caused by rain. As a matter of fact, the gardens were beginning to suffer from the unusual drought although it had not yet, affected the quality of the rhododendron show.
To one who is interested in photography and historical places as well as rhododendrons, the trip was practically perfect. It was arranged so that we could stop occasionally to see prehistoric ruins, Roman remains, old Norman castles, and such outstanding cathedrals as those at Exeter, Wells and Shrewsbury. Close up views were had of Warwick Castle, Stratford-on-Avon, Conway Castle, and many other places and buildings famous in history and literature.
At the end of the 10-day tour the American group split up, the writer with some others visiting a number of nurseries south of London, Kew Gardens, Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, and the nursery area in Holland. Space and time do not now permit a description of those side trips.
One of the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to meet the owners of most of these gardens, many of whom have been active in rhododendron breeding and culture for many years. The visitors were always received with great courtesy, the gardens were shown and explained in detail, and in a number of cases the visitors were invited into the homes where tea was served. The American group, I believe, will always consider that this was the chance of a lifetime to see the rhododendrons in England and to meet the outstanding personalities in the, English Rhododendron field. We hope that many of our English friends will be able to repay our visit although we may not be able to show them such beautiful and extensive gardens.